Saturday, January 06, 2007

Fragile times in the city


It was a jittery start to 2007 for Thailand as rumours flew about another coup taking place following the New Year Eve bomb blasts.

AS BANGKOK swirled with rumours of an impending coup on Thursday night, a female editor moaned: “Yesterday I was waiting for bombs, today I’m waiting for a coup, tomorrow I don’t know what it will be.”

On Wednesday, soldiers swarmed Thailand’s leading English newspaper The Nation to investigate a bomb threat at the newspaper’s premises in the suburbs of Bangkok.

The 1.18pm phone call that warned “listen carefully, I have set three bombs in your building to go off in three hours”, turned out to be a hoax.

In total, nine sites in the capital and six provinces received bomb threats on that day.

Welcome to a jittery Thailand at the start of 2007.

Since the eight bomb blasts that killed three people in Bangkok on New Year Eve, the country has been hoping for the best and worrying over the worst.

For instance, an explosion was heard outside The Nation building an hour before the bomb threat warning. It was enough to stir anxiety that another bomb – Ammonium Nitrate Fuel Oil (an industrial blasting agent of 94% ammonium nitrate and 6% petrol) packed with nails and set off by digital alarm clock – had exploded.

False alarm. It turned out that a vehicle tyre had burst on the Bangna-Trat highway that connects Bangkok to Suvarnabhumi International Airport.

Thailand grew more anxious on Thursday night.

Reports of troop mobilisation led to speculation that hardliners among the Sept 19 coup makers, who ousted then prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, were about to launch another coup to boost their own power.

At about 8pm, the military made a televised announcement on the Army-run TV5 denying troops were being mobilised with ill intent.

“The army urges all citizens not to believe the rumour and be confident in our ability to control the situation. Army chief Gen Sonthi (Bunyarat-kalin) has given an assurance the situation is normal,” it said.

Still, the coup rumours intensified. The denial seemed to give credence that there was indeed a coup.

Later, Assistant Army chief Gen Saprang Kallayanamitr told a radio station: “My boss has been too nice to those who have ill-intent for the country and the people. From now on, we will adjust our strategy and get tough with those people.”

By 10.30pm, the rumours took another swirl. Word went round that the coup was averted as Gen Saprang was locked in negotiations with his bosses, Prime Minister Gen Surayud Chulanont and Gen Sonthi, at the Army Headquarters.

And that depending on the outcome of the negotiations, Surayud may have to step down as interim Prime Minister because hardliners were gunning for tougher measures against Thaksin.

The scenario echoed the words of Sulak Sivaraksa, a 74-year-old social activist who was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, during an interview on Wednesday.

“This Sept 19 is the weakest coup that we ever had. Because in every coup those who have taken power are in real control.

“They assassinate their opponents, put them in jail or exile them,” he noted.

“But these coup leaders have done nothing. Either they are too goody-goody or they don’t know how to exercise power or there is no unity in the army.”

Yesterday, The Nation reported: “Rumours abound about conflicts within the Council for National Security (CNS, the official name of the coup perpetrators) – and between the CNS and the Surayud government – over how to deal with Thaksin. These conflicts reportedly intensified in the wake of the bomb incidents.”

Sulak also noted that if the interim government were efficient, the New Year’s Eve bombing would not have happened.

“Surayud is a nice man. Sonthi is a nice man. The trouble with this country is we have so many nice men; but they are not efficient,” he explained.

An efficient government, he added, would have taken a harder stance against Thaksin who faced a slew of corruption allegations.

On the consequences of the New Year Eve bombings, Sulak said that if there were more bombings, the Surayud government might have collapsed.

“Somebody will kick them out, somebody within the army,” he said before Thursday’s rumours.

(Published in The Star on Jan 6, 2007. Photograph courtesy of The Nation)